Commencement 2004: Honorands
Jeffrey Charles Wright, Class of 1987
Doctor of Humane Letters
Jeffrey Wright has said that he began acting because he wanted to get a few
things off his chest. In the seventeen years since he began to “unburden” himself,
he has become one of the most accomplished actors of his generation, with a series
of quietly intense, complex performances on stage, in film, and on television.
After graduating from Amherst with a political science degree in 1987, Wright earned a theater scholarship to New York University. Less than two months later, he left the academy for the stage. He rose to prominence quickly, earning a Tony Award for his 1994 portrayal of the nurse Belize in Angels in America, then generating widespread critical acclaim for his portrayal of the title character in the 1996 film Basquiat. Since those early, attention-getting performances, he has illuminated an astonishing range of characters in a precociously distinguished career: He was the narrator in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk; he earned an Obie (and a second Tony nomination) for his performance as the white-faced Lincoln in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog; and last year he received a Golden Globe for his work in the acclaimed television adaptation of Angels in America. Whether as charismatic drug lord Peoples Hernandez in Shaft, or as a deeply human Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Boycott, or as an African American fighting for the Confederacy in Ride with the Devil, he has consistently invested his performances with nuances that allow his characters to resist easy categorization and rise above stereotype.
Wright is among the rarest of actors: a strong, formidable artist who completely disappears into his roles. With his thoughtful, complex portrayals opposite some of America’s most honored performers, he has proven repeatedly that it is often the quietest actors who generate the most noise.
Photo: Michael Zide